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Invented Traditions as We Near the Political Denouement of the 2017-2018 Football Season in Turkey: What of Basaksehirspor? What of Osmanlispor?

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With the 2017-2018 Turkish football season winding down, there are a few political stories which could develop in the coming weeks. By virtue of a hard-fought victory over Alanyaspor, Galatasaray returned to the top one point clear of Istanbul Basaksehirspor. Below the leaders shit traditional powerhouses Besiktas (third place) and Fenerbahce (fourth place). In terms of upcoming fixtures, next weekend proves to be the most exciting. While leaders Galatasaray will face off against fellow title challengers Besiktas (who will be either second, third, or fourth, depending on their result against Yeni Malatyaspor on Sunday 22 April), Istanbul Basaksehirspor will be facing strugglers Osmanlispor (who are currently 15th in the table).

 

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The Turkish Super League Table Going Into 22 April 2018. Image Courtesy of Mackolik.com

 

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Upcoming Fixtures For Galatasaray (Top) and Istanbul Basaksehirspor (Bottom). On Paper, Istanbul Basaksehirspor Have the Advantage. Image Courtesy of Google Search.

 

In effect, this means that the weekend will be defined by the results of the Istanbul derby on the one hand, and the derby between invented teams on the other. Indeed, considering the final four matches of the season, Basaksehirspor have an undoubted advantage on paper. The ultimate answer, however, might have as much to do with on the pitch results as it will to do with off the pitch politics. While the two established Istanbul powers face off in the Istanbul derby, Basaksehirspor will be facing fellow invented team Osmanlispor. While Osmanli won their latest match against fellow strugglers Genclerbirligi Sk, it will be interesting to see what the powers at be in Turkish football make with next weekend’s match. A win for Istanbul Basaksehirspor might well mean a shot at the championship; a loss for Osmanlispor might mean relegation for the neo-Ottoman sports club.

Essentially, the question can be rephrased: Will Osmanlispor be sacrificed for Istanbul Basaksehirspor to have a shot at the championship? My hunch is that they will be; Istanbul Basaksehirspor have come to close to their first championship to be abandoned now and—given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is such a big fan—the team have friends in high places. The team on the other side of this affair, Osmanlispor, are in the opposite situation. While they were founded in order to project a neo-Ottoman image on the football pitch, their main supporter—former Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek (whose son is chairman of the team)—had a falling out with President Erdogan and, as such, the team may not have the backing it needs to survive another year in Turkey’s top flight; indeed I foresaw Osmanlispor’s struggles back in October of 2017.

Another reason that Osmanlispor might be sacrificed is that there is a contingent of new “project” teams in the TFF First League (the second tier of Turkish football) vying for promotion to the Turkish Super League. Among them are Umraniyespor, who currently sit in second place, and Ankaragucu, who currently sit in fourth place. Umraniyespor, from a conservative suburb of Istanbul’s Asian side, were just a decade ago an obscure team floundering in the amateur leagues; they now have modeled themselves as “the Basaksehirspor of Istanbul’s Asian side”.

 

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The Table in the TFF First Division (Turkey’s Second Tier) Going into 22 April 2018. Image Courtesy Of Mackolik.com

 

Ankaragucu, one of Turkish football’s oldest teams, had been ignored for much of the AKP years while teams like Hacettepe SK and Osmanlispor’s previous incarnation Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor flew the flag of the Turkish capital in the Turkish top flight. However, since former Mayor Melih Gokcek began supporting the team again in late 2017 (please see here and here, the team has risen back to prominence (this, of course, despite Mr. Gokcek’s 2011 Tweet calling for Ankaragucu to “disappear”; perhaps this was why his attempt to take over the team was rejected by Ankaragucu president Mehmet Yiginer).

It has not, however, stopped Mr. Gokcek from supporting the team unofficially. Indeed, Osmanlispor and Ankaragucu have a unique relationship: On 7 September 2017 Mr. Gokcek was overjoyed announcing Ankaragucu’s acquisition of four Osmanlispor players—valued at over 10 million Turkish Liras—free of charge! Mr. Gokcek’s Tweet claimed that Osmanlispor gave the players free so that “Ankaragucu could be champions”. Perhaps Mr. Gokcek, recognizing that Osmanlispor’s days were numbered at the outset of the 2017-2018 season—began to throw his support behind Ankaragucu whole-sale.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/sporarena/osmanlispor-4-futbolcusunu-ucretsiz-verdi-melih-gokcek-40571855

 

Given the situation, it will be interesting to see what happens between Istanbul Basaksehirspor and Osmanlispor next weekend; even if the latter lose to Basaksehirspor it is likely that the powers that be in Turkish football would rather see Genclerbirligi—a team founded in the same year of the Turkish Republic and with a strong republican and left-leaning fan-base—relegated than Osmanlispor. Given that both teams are essentially fighting for survival against one another, Osmanlispor might have some help on the other end of the table. At that point, what will matter is if Osmanlispor is seen as a good investment by those with influence off the pitch. After all, the team have few fans and—if they are not successful—that money could likely be used to support Ankaragucu instead, especially if they are able to get themselves promoted. Regardless of the motives of individual actors in this scenario, it is clear that the final weeks of the Turkish football season will see some real political wrangling both on and off the field. It will be an interesting final few weeks for observers to keep an eye on.

Sports and Society: Religious and Ethnic Identities Come to the Fore in Turkish Stadiums

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In the past couple of weeks Turkish stadiums have become the venue of choice for the airing of political views. The tensions of the final weeks of the football season have only served to heighten tensions already existing in both sport and society. What is most interesting, however, that in the past weeks two groups within Turkish society—seemingly at odds with one another—have both been targeted in stadiums: Kurds and secular Turks. In the context of the stadium it is possible to see that these groups may have more in common than outside observers may initially believe.

On 17 April 2016, Altay, from Western Turkey’s liberal port city of Izmir that sees itself as representing the progressive idealism of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, faced Erzurum Büyükşehir Belediyespor in eastern Turkey in a third tier soccer match. After the first half, which ended 1-1, the Altay team claims that their players were attacked on the way to the locker rooms; allegedly one man brandished a knife. Before the match, fans in Erzurum chanted “Gavur Izmir”, or “Infidel Izmir” the (not-so-flattering) nickname of Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, the old Smyrna. One Altay administrator claimed they feared for their lives. A local newspaper from Erzurum responded to these claims, noting all of the heroic acts that Erzurumians have done over the course of Turkish history including taking Greek soldiers hostage after the Greek invasion of Izmir. The local paper, Yeni Akit, also claims that the Izmir team’s fans called those in Erzurum “terrorists” and demanded an apology from Turkish football pundits who disparaged the city for the “infidel” chants. We may never know what truly happened in the stadium but it points to an important ideological division within Turkey that is not insignificant, one that I will return to in a moment.

One week later, on 24 April, 2016, MKE Ankaragücü faced the Kurdish side Amedspor in the Turkish capital in another third tier soccer match. After Amedspor scored to go up 2-1 in the 85th minute, some of the Kurdish team’s executives celebrated, prompting a vicious attack by Ankaragücü’s executives that was caught on video. In the end injuries ranged from broken noses to concussions and several people–including the chairman of the Ankara team—were taken in for questioning by police. The Ankaragücü team, in their second response to the violence, note that when their team played in Diyarbakir their fans were stoned and had to witness the whistling down of the Turkish national anthem; they further note that the Amedspor executives broke an unspoken rule. Celebrating like a fan in the executive seats is unacceptable.

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Image Courtesy of: http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/amedspor-yoneticilerine-saldiri-kamerada

While we will never know the full details of either of these incidents because we can only hear versions of the events from either side, it shows that the divisions within society are being replicated—and amplified—in the stadium.

On Tuesday, 26 April 2016, the issue of religion again came to the fore as Turkey’s Speaker of Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, said Turkey needed a religious constitution. This provoked small scale protests from many who fear the country’s long-standing secularism is under threat. The response, once again, came from the stands. On 30 April, 2016, Besiktas fans in the brand new Vodafone Arena chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” during their match with Kayserispor, while fans of Fenerbahçe echoed the same sentiments during their match that weekend.

As one local commentator noted, this kind of tension—often culminating in violence—has been present in Turkish football for the past thirty-five years. Just in the last month there have been incidents at major matches in Karabük and Trabzon, where a fan assaulted the referee. Smaller matches have also been affected; Police had to fire warning shots to disperse fans at an amateur match.

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In Karabuk. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.ntv.com.tr/galeri/spor/karabukte-saha-karisti,_E7O2BsgHk-PTv6L-r6EQg/w9WVT_8XlUKmpWg6YKDHkA?_sgm_campaign=scn_b80478c001c4e000&_sgm_source=d8ce4efc-201b-4f1e-8f4e-fe8bfabe8442&_sgm_action=click

What is different in the present, however, is that there is also violence—as we saw in Erzurum and Ankara—that is not just wanton aggression precipitated by fan anger at referees or at one another. Instead, we see violence with political undertones, based instead on religious and ethnic identities. More importantly, we see that two of the groups that have become victims of this violence—those perceived to be secular and those who are Kurdish—have for many years been on opposite sides of the Turkish political world; the divide between western and eastern Turkey manifested itself with secular Turks from “modern” western Turkey disdaining Kurds from “backward” eastern Turkey. The current marginalization of both groups within Turkish society, however, also offers a unique opportunity for them to come together in ways that were not possible in the past.

Football Clubs Continue to Respond to the Soma Mine Disaster in Turkey as the Government Weighs In

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Since news of the Soma mine disaster broke last night there have been many responses, both from football clubs and from government officials in Turkey. Sadly, the latter have been less than encouraging. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had an opportunity to win over his detractors by taking a conciliatory tone in the wake of disaster. Unfortunately he decided to stick with his harsh and unrelenting rhetoric, which does not bode well for the country’s future.

As the death toll rose to 274—the biggest industrial disaster in Turkish history–Erdogan made his move in an interview with the Soma municipality. Perhaps, in fact, Reuters wrote it best:

“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he [Erdogan] said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

Reel off he did. Hurriyet.com carried the Turkish version here from which I got the italicized portions below. His comments were, frankly, embarrassing. A sampling is below, taken from what I assume to be the interview with reporters at the Soma Municipality (so as to excuse the grammatical errors even in the Hurriyet transcript):

The video is here starting from 14:00:

 

İngiltere’de geçmişe gidiyorum, 1862 bu madende göçük 204 kişi ölmüş. 1866 361 kişi ölmüş İngiltere. İngiltere’de 1894 patlama 290. Fransa’ya geliyorum 1906 dünya tarihinin en ölümlü ikinci kazası 1099. Daha yakın dönemlere geleyim diyorum, Japonya 1914’de 687. Çin 1942, gaz ve kömür karışmanın neden olduğu sayılıyor ölüm sayısı 1549.

 Değerli arkadaşlar yine Çin’de 1960 metan gazı patlaması 684. Ve Japonya’da 1963’te yine kömür tozu patlaması 458. Hindistan 375. 1975’te metan gazı alev aldı, maden çatısı çöktü ve 372. Bu ocakların bu noktada bu tür kazaları sürekli olan şeyler.

Bakın Amerika. Teknolojisiyle her şeyiyle. 1907’de 361.

My translation:

I go to the past in England. 1862 in a mine there was a cave in 204 people died. [In] 1866 361 people died [in] England. In England in 1894 [there was an] explosion 290 [died]. I’m coming to France, [in] 1906 [was] world history’s second most deadly accident, 1099 [died]. I say we should come to more recent history, in Japan in 1914 687 [died]. China 1942, because gas and coal mixed the death count was 1549.

My dear friends again in China in 1960 a methane gas explosion caused 684 [deaths]. And in Japan in 1963 again a coal dust explosion [caused] 458 [deaths]. In India 375 [deaths]. In 1975 methane gas caught fire, the roof of the mine collapsed and 372 [died]. In these places in coal mines these kinds of accidents are things that constantly happen.

Look [at] America. With its technology [and] everything. In 1907 361 [died].

 

I can only shake my head. I don’t need to go into the details of the history of Turkish industrial accidents—Reuters has that covered. But the fact that the leader of a country that is listed as one of the world’s leading economic powers—a founding member of the OECD and G20—should resort to statistics from two centuries ago is astounding. Does he mean to say Turkey is comparable to England in 1862 and the United States in 1907? This is an insult to the development Turkey has seen under the AKP and to its standing in the world today. Given these words, it does not surprise me that protests broke out across Turkey today . After all, this is symptomatic of the rampant privatization that has occurred under the AKP government—unions argue that “safety standards were not improved once formerly state-run facilities were leased to private companies”  (the mine in question in Soma is privately owned). Corruption isn’t only morally wrong, its dangerous.

I write this because I believe that Prime Minister Erdogan, as the leader of a democratic country, should have been more conciliatory in the wake of tragedy instead of dredging up numbers from the distant past in order to provide context for a terrible tragedy. That said, I prefer to let the dust settle and allow families time to grieve before pointing fingers of blame (even if the direction those fingers will point in is fairly obvious). With that, I present some heartwarming news from the football world, which Hurriyet.com has collected (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/26418723.asp and http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/26414735.asp ).

Many teams have started a #TribunHasilatlariSomaya campaign, and there have been many responses:

–       The proceeds from this week’s Kardemir Karabukspor match with Sivasspor will be donated to those affected by the tragedy.

–       The supporter groups of Ankaragucu—themselves a team formed by workers at a munitions plant during the Turkish war of independence—will donate money they collect to the families of those who lost their lives in Soma.

–       The proceeds from Besiktas’s match with Genclerbirligi will be donated to those affected by the tragedy.

–       Galatasaray will donate the proceeds from an upcoming friendly to the victims and their families as well.

–       Fenerbahce’s fans at 12 numara.org have also started a campaign to raise money to help those affected.

 

Also internationally Barcelona added their voice of support to Liverpool’s.

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From England (whose mining tragedies were listed by the Prime Minister) condolences came from Chelsea and Sheffield United.

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Schalke 04 from Germany, a miners club themselves (their nickname is Die Knappen—the Miners) from Gelsenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, added their voice as well in a meaningful show of solidarity.

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Respect to all these clubs for bringing international recognition to this tragedy that may well have repercussions for Turkish politics in the not so distant future.